The LME School Improvement Fund - enabling quality education to help reduce worst forms of child labour in the DRC's cobalt mining communities.

In early 2021, the LME announced its financial support of two charitable projects designed to address the worst forms of child labor in mineral supply chains. Earlier this year we provided an update on the work we were doing with Pact in Zambia, and this blog post updates on our second project – the LME School Improvement Fund in partnership with The Impact Facility (TIF). TIF is a charitable organisation from the UK with offices in the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) and across East Africa dedicated to ensuring that mining communities benefit from regional mineral wealth. The LME-financed School Improvement Fund focuses on supporting cobalt mining communities in the DRC, expanding on TIF’s work under the umbrella of the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

Children in front of their school building in Kapata neighborhood 

Image: Children in front of their school building in the Kapata neighbourhood of Kolwezi, where the LME School Improvement Fund projects are based.

Artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC

Cobalt is a critical material for the green energy transition, used mainly in the production of lithium-ion batteries. The production of cobalt is primarily centred in the DRC, accounting for 70% of global cobalt production. Within the DRC, an estimated 150,000-200,000 artisanal miners derive an income from cobalt mining, accounting for an estimated 12% of the DRC’s cobalt production in 2021. Artisanal miners use non-mechanised techniques for mineral recovery and operate in an environment often associated with both hazardous working conditions and high-incidence of child labour. While, locally, child labour is not limited to the ASM cobalt sector, it has since captured media and regulatory attention in the context of global battery supply chains, especially given the contrast between the high-value products cobalt enters into, set against poor working conditions upstream.

Child labour in mining is driven by a myriad of factors, with extreme poverty often at its root. According to 87% of the participants in a recent study by Save the Children, helping to pay for school fees and other school-related costs is a key factor leading children to seek direct forms of income-generation. During COVID-19, lockdown measures and a fragmentation of trader-networks caused disruptions in cobalt supply chains and led to both export shortages and price-shocks. At the same time, school closures created a “perfect storm” of conditions, leading to a significant increase in the number of children engaging in mining.

Poor facilities within schools also contribute to increased drop-out levels, especially for girls facing sanitary facilities that are simply insufficient for the overall school size. These structural factors persist in most cobalt mining communities in the DRC, including in and around the capital of Lualaba Province, the heart of the copper-cobalt-belt, Kolwezi – a centre point for recent support facilitated by the LME in partnership with TIF.

Scope of the project and steps taken so far

The Fund has been designed to drive the reduction of child labour in Kolwezi, by improving the quality of educational facilities and encouraging both school enrolment and sustained attendance among children from mining households.

The Fund enables infrastructure improvements for a number of public schools in Kapata, a mining community where 80-90% of inhabitants are connected to the artisanal mining sector, either directly as workers, or with their family income dependent on the sector. Due to a general lack of government investment, the conditions of public schools in this area have deteriorated over time to a deplorable state, causing children to drop out of school, further increasing the risk of them engaging in child labour in surrounding mine sites. 

Dark classroom with very small and few windows 

Image: Many classrooms, like this one, are dark due to a lack of windows or windows that are closed. After windows break, they are often masoned shut, due to a lack of funding for repairs.

Schools eligible for the improvement fund were carefully selected based on a range of criteria, seeking input from local administrative authorities, local civil society organisations, and a partner cooperative representing several thousand mine workers long active in the region. As the key goal of the programme is to contribute to the reduction of child labour in artisanal cobalt sites, part of the criteria revolved around assessing the quality of education of the schools. This included the official pay-rolling of teachers, the capacity of the schools to effectively manage a rehabilitation project, the management structures of the schools, the support schools offer against school drop-outs and, lastly, the number and socio economic background of the pupils – with the programme targeting schools with a high ratio of pupils from artisanal mining families.

Three schools were finally selected for the initial round of investment – one combined primary and secondary school, another primary school and one vocational training centre for young women – directly benefiting approximately 1,400 students as well as 50-100 young women. This way, children facing different risks of engaging in child labour, including school drop-outs due to overcrowded schools or children whose families lack other income generating opportunities and accompany their mothers to the mines, all stand to benefit from these interventions.

Classroom at the vocational training centre in Kapata 

Image: A classroom at the vocational training centre in the Kapata neighbourhood, which offers training to approximately 50 women. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, all buildings are in a dismal state and lack equipment to teach the women, leading to higher drop-out rates.

The schools, in consultation with parents’ committees and community authorities, put forward different project ideas that would help them most, the majority of which related to rehabilitation of existing and the construction of new facilities – building refurbishment and equipment, the construction of additional classrooms, appropriate sanitary facilities, and fencing around the schools. Over the next few months, TIF will be carrying out 18 individual projects across the three selected schools.

Map of the area where the three schools are within the Kapata neighbourhood 

Image: This map shows the area where the three selected schools are within the Kapata neighbourhood, adjacent to the ASM mine site, near Kolwezi in the DRC.

Next steps

The local opening ceremony of the LME School Improvement Fund in August marked the official start of the construction work, which is expected to continue into October making full use of the schools’ summer break.

We will provide a further update over the coming months as the projects really start to take shape.

Written by Nicole Hanson, Responsible Sourcing Manager, LME

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